Destroying the blame game, one sorry misconception at a time.
Welcome back to Corporate Punk’s series ‘Is it me…?’, in which we seek new answers to common questions plaguing today’s creative leader — answers that usually involve the word ‘Yes’.
“The best thing about your meetings,” said the CMO of a major client of an agency in which I led Planning in the mid-noughties*, “is your biscuits. I just love them. I could sit licking the chocolate off them all day.”
Just what was he playing at? Damning our meetings (and by extension, my leadership of them) with the faintest of praise? Admitting that corporate life had so few perks that Fox’s wares were all he had left to enjoy? Exploring the outer extremes of irony? All of the above? None?
It’s taken me years to process that comment – and I have thought about it more than I probably should. It underscored the crisis of confidence I was experiencing about network agency life, and gave rise to a series of questions in my mind:
What are meetings? How do we know if we’re doing them right? Do they matter? What makes them matter?
And how have we arrived at a point when the type of biscuits available has become a factor in how anyone assesses meeting quality?
Whatever his intentions, my client wasn’t alone in his skewed perspective. Research has produced some interesting statistics about meetings. The following are from The Wall Street Journal, the British Psychological Society, the Universities of Minnesota and Harvard, a Harris poll, and Atlassian:
- Employees attend an average of 62 meetings a month
- CEOs spend a remarkable 40% of their time in meetings
- 47% of employees think that meetings are the number one timewaster at the office
- 43% felt overwhelmed by the number of meetings they attend
- 90% admitted to daydreaming during meetings
- 73% said they did other work during meetings
- Best of all, 39% said they slept (!) during meetings.
The things that waste the largest amounts of business’s money are often not individual line items, which are relatively easily tracked (at Corporate Punk we call them ‘non-salient costs’). Meetings are almost certainly the worst offender in this regard. At least $37 billion is wasted in bad meetings every year in the US alone. One estimate is as high as $213 billion. Unproductive meetings are a huge cost to the global economy.
And the consequences go further than just hours burned. After all, with all this wasted time, how do we all catch up with our ‘real work’? We do it after hours and at the weekend.
It is a business imperative – and human one – to get some control over this, and do something about eliminating the waste, one biscuit at a time.
Before we go on, it’s time I came out of the closet.
As someone who makes their living working with others, often in groups, I need to voice an unpopular sentiment: I love meetings.
I’m serious. Meetings are where people talk to each other, which is what we humans do for fun. In business, meetings are the main way in which we relate to each other – which reveals the very soul of an organisation.
Indeed, at the highest level, meetings are the reason we all go to work at the same place; they are where we commune with our tribe. When we’re being creative and the conditions are right, meetings are how our tribe makes magic.
For many years now, the meeting has been my workbench. In fact, I used to half-joke to agency colleagues that my job was “to be good in meetings”. The very best of them have been career changers – sometimes for me, sometimes for the people involved. Every meeting is a lesson in disguise.
So, yes, I love meetings – but why wouldn’t I, when they’re so full of promise?
The problem is that most organisations are failing to turn that promise into anything approaching reality.
Help is at hand. Sort of
This isn’t the first article to be written about meetings, and it won’t be the last. The business press has spent years noodling on this topic, on and off, and there is no shortage of available advice.
But I’d make two observations. The first is that, given the pre-eminence of bad meetings as a business-threatening issue, there is a relative lack of heavyweight literature on this topic. Look for a Bible (or, more pertinently, a DSM) for meetings, and it just doesn’t exist. This is surprising (and would seem to support our point about non-salient costs).
Secondly, the solutions that do get offered up – and occasionally end up being that most depressing of phenomena, the ‘trend’ – tend to be gimmicky and short-lived. We’ve all heard of the no-biscuits meeting (the horror!) or the one-point agenda. We dread the CEO asking us to perform the latest Japanese management technique she’s read about in an in-flight magazine. Stand-ups can be useful but, when baked into methodologies such as Agile, can turn cultish and alienating, causing more problems than they solve.
More generally, people rarely receive training in how to run or manage meetings. It’s not part of our educational system in any respect. You could get an MBA from a prestigious business school of your choosing, and still know little more than when you started about how to communicate effectively within a group setting.
The result? Well, you can bet that at some point, when experiencing the worst that meetings have to offer, almost everyone reading this article will have asked that perennial question… Eyes to the sky, and all together now: “Is it me?”
To which we offer the following, cast-iron-guaranteed answer:
Yes, it is.
This is one of the core things we stress in our work at Corporate Punk, and it bears repeating: you are always a significant contributor to the problems that you face. That extends to your interactions with others in groups. No matter where you sit in the corporate hierarchy, you have the ability to influence your meetings, for better or for worse. In fact, whether or not you realise it, you are already doing so.
But how do you diagnose the problems?
Here’s a starter for ten – or ten thought starters, if you prefer. You can be sure that the problems are of your making if you are doing one or some of the following:
Carrying dead weight.
If your meeting is intentionally discursive, but someone hasn’t made a meaningful contribution within the first ten minutes, does it occur to you that they might they be more productive somewhere else? Perhaps they should come back for the bit that is relevant to them?
(Note that there is a critical distinction here between ‘dead weight’ and introverts.)
Giving introverts no voice.
The cut and thrust of many meetings can be the enemy of the introvert. Introverts are often the most creative thinkers in any group – but keeping their thoughts and ideas to themselves doesn’t do anyone any good. If you are failing to give your introverts your vocal support, and nurture the best out of them in what they might find a challenging environment, you are fundamentally failing your business.
Creating no room for thinking.
A combination of the deadening effect of PowerPoint and badly managed politics means that meetings can be a fertile ground for the spreading of bullshit. To be effective, meetings rely on open, honest discussion. But if you all need some thinking time, are you allowing people to be quiet? Silence is often the sound of thought happening, and it isn’t awkward – unless you specifically create a context in which it is.
Tolerating showboating, or people taking a contrary position for the sake of it.
Arguments can be constructive things. But when they’re not, how well are you managing your meetings? If you banish antagonists to the (metaphorical) balcony or the (literal) corridor, more often than not they’ll come back with a resolution, or at least a better understanding of each other’s position.
Allowing things to go on too long.
The principle that short is good doesn’t need to apply to a meeting as a whole. But people are not psychologically programmed for marathon conversations. Are you actively addressing this? Rather than a 60-minute meeting about 8 things, might it be better to think about holding 8 micro-meetings that last 6 minutes, with short breaks in between?
(This really works, by the way.)
Operating to no agenda, or a bad one.
The humble agenda is one of the most misunderstood items in business. A list of topics will not get you very far, for the simple reason that they often lack context. Do you understand your overall objectives, and how this meeting is contributing to them? Have you really thought through whether a meeting is necessary in this context?
Equally importantly, are you actively considering what could go wrong in the room? As we’ve said before, a ‘pre-mortem’ is never wasted. Taking ten minutes to think about how the meeting might play out for better or worse is a valuable investment, and a way to make sure your agenda gets followed. Otherwise you are likely to have to negotiate your position whilst in the meeting, thus wasting everyone’s time.
Agreeing no action points, or failing to follow them up.
No further comment is necessary here. But here’s looking at you, creative industry colleagues!!
Ignoring different meeting modalities.
What applies in an ideas kick-about doesn’t apply in a sales presentation. But how often are you imposing the same meeting structure, or expecting the same results from different meeting modalities? Jay Z once said that there are only 10 rap songs. Isn’t the same thing true of meetings? How do you segment your meetings? What rules are you allowing to dictate each type of meeting? Does one size fit all?
Enabling role-based behaviour.
A bit like families at Christmas, people tend to play the same roles when holding meetings with the same people. There’s the curmudgeon, the clown, the matriarch, and so on. Slipping into those roles is often counterproductive: it stifles creative endeavour and masks the discussion of difficult problems. If you can describe your or others’ role(s) in meetings in three words or fewer, you are limiting your ability to contribute. “I’m Mr Common Sense” is all very nice and ego nourishing, but it is stopping you working at your generative best.
Ignoring the signs of distress.
It sounds obvious, but when people roll their eyes, nod off, do other things, don’t turn up, or leave early, your meetings aren’t working. So what are you doing about it, other than gnawing more chocolate off that biscuit?
Let’s make 2017 the Year of the (Good) Meeting
With productive meetings, a business can and will transform before your eyes. If you don’t believe me, ask the Corporate Punk team in for an initial discussion, and we’ll prove it to you.
Psychological science underpins the issue of meetings, and it’s time that we started paying attention to that fact. Group psychodynamics – how people’s minds work together – is the crux of work. The process of staging a meeting is the process of mining those psychodynamics, and the politics that they create, to enable good ideas and decisions to develop. In that sense, meetings exist to help us create, check, and balance our different agendas, to create better outcomes for ourselves, our colleagues, and sometimes even the wider world.
So we must use the meeting to engage in politics, in the best sense of that word. When we openly and honestly discuss theory and practice in an environment where either the best argument wins or compromise is achieved, meetings can and will be amazing things.